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Learn Street Epistemology To Deal With Difficult People at Work

Dealing with a stubborn coworker is something most of us dread. “Oh man, I have to talk to that guy again, ugh…” you tell yourself, especially in cases where you don’t have much leverage on the situation or the person.

And sometimes, the person you deal with seems somewhat reasonable, but the two of you see things so differently that you can’t seem to reach any agreement or even start to understand why your respective conclusions are so far apart.

Imagine you’re at work and you’re facing some of the following conversations:

  • An engineer tells you he strongly believes that project X doesn’t make any sense, because technology W is not good enough for it.
  • A product manager tells you he is absolutely convinced that using a certain approach to roll out a new feature is doomed to failure.
  • An engineering manager who reports to you is saying that without any doubts, person P on her team is really not good enough and is underperforming.

Ever been in a situation like that? I bet you have.

And what do these situations have in common? They’re all opinions and beliefs that people are dumping on you without context or facts.

When faced by such a situation, it’s tempting to shove it into someone’s face that they’re wrong, and press it to the point that it’s painful for them. There’s a certain satisfaction that we all get from “being right.” I know it, because I’ve done this myself in the past, and I’m not proud of it.

That’s also what most people do: they just reply with whatever opinions they have in their own minds at that moment. And the hope is that after some time of throwing opinions at each other’s face, the argument is going to sort itself out and help the two parties come to an agreement, or at least, to an understanding.

But reality is often very different from that, and without a more structured and pragmatic approach to such conversations, you’ll end up making decisions based on social status, feelings, beliefs, and personal preferences, which is the total opposite of what you want to do if you wish to make rational decisions.

My intent with this article is to introduce you to a conversation technique called street epistemology.

Many introductions to street epistemology have been written, and my key contribution here is to localize the technique so you can learn to use it specifically in a work environment. In particular, it will do wonders with colleagues with whom you have little leverage, generally because they are above you in the org chart—like your manager or your manager’s manager—or because they sit in a sister organization in which you have little political weight.

In this article, I will first briefly cover some examples of epistemologies to give you more context, then I’ll give you a step-by-step guide on how to use street epistemology in a workplace environment. Finally, I have added plenty of links and materials at the end of this article if you want to dive further into the topic.

What is Street Epistemology?

Street Epistemology (SE) started as a conversation tool developed by Peter Boghossian and atheist groups in the United States as they wanted to have cordial conversations with religious believers. In a way, you could say that it is closely related to the Socratic method of dialog.

If you are religious, don’t run away just yet! Please, take a minute to understand that neither SE, this article, or myself are trying to change your personal beliefs. With this article, I only intend to talk about SE as a general conversational tool, which can be applied to many forms of beliefs and opinions, not only religious ones.

The main angle of SE is to take conversations away from the usual confrontation and arguing, and even away from the belief that’s being discussed, because all those things are counterproductive. Instead, SE focuses on the foundation of the belief, i.e. what led the person to believe what she believes, in other words, the epistemology. This, in turn, makes the conversions more cordial, effective, and productive.

Now taking a quick step back, let’s define epistemology: it is the branch of philosophy that deals with the study of knowledge, and more importantly, asks the question “how do you know what you know?”

The concept of epistemology is a big deal, because there’s an important distinction to be made between the beliefs people hold, and the justifications and methods they’re using to verify that those beliefs are accurate. And to add to that, most people are unaware of the epistemologies which they use to support their beliefs and opinions.

Below are some examples of epistemologies that you’ll find people using in the wild:

  • I feel it strongly in my heart that it’s the case.
  • My manager told me that it’s the case. She’s never lied to me before, so I trust her, and therefore it must be true.
  • This principal engineer that I talked to is holding the same opinion. He’s a very experienced and knowledgeable guy, so this must be true.
  • I read something I found on a blog.
  • I watched a video online.
  • I flipped a coin.
  • I use faith.

SE intends to make your interlocutor realize the flaws in the way they came to build a belief, and based on that, concluded by themselves that if the foundation is broken, then the belief itself must be invalid.

SE will help you achieve two things (1) help your interlocutors navigate whether or not he should believe in that thing in the first place, and while you’re doing so, (2) verify the truth and validity of a thing or belief that this interlocutor is putting in front of you.

Using SE is also changing the way you look at people. You have more empathy for them, and you’re less angry about them not adopting your views.

One key aspect of SE is that it is non-confrontational. It allows you to challenge someone’s belief in the most gentle and least intrusive way possible, which has the advantage of not burning any bridges and not risking your relationship with your interlocutor, which is often something important in a work environment.

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How To Apply Street Epistemology in the Workplace

Street epistemology (SE) follows a simple process of asking someone questions about their opinion or belief, digging into the what, the why, and the how:

What: the claims. What does this person believe? What level of confidence does he have in this belief?

Why: the reasons. Why does the person believe this? What are the reasons?

How: the methods (the epistemologies). How is the person confirming those reasons are the main reasons for thinking something is true? How did he confirm that?

Below, I’ve put together a list of steps that you’d want to follow when using SE, along with a list of questions you might want to ask. By the way, many examples below are questions I stole from Anthony Magnabosco’s excellent content on the topic. All credit for those go to him, and the rest are mine.

Step 1: Listen and Clarify the Person’s Belief

  • Let me rephrase to make sure I understand. You’re saying that [rephrase the person’s point here] — did I get it correct?
  • Would you say that X is closer to a fact or an opinion?
  • You said that technology X won’t be enough. What do you mean by “won’t be enough?”
  • You said that technology Y is much better. How do you define “better” in this case?

Step 2: Calibrate Confidence by Asking the Person What Percentage They Would Put On Their Belief

  • From a scale of 1 to 100, how much do you believe that X is correct?

Step 3(a): Dive Into the Reasons and Justifications

  • What are the reasons why you believe in X?
  • What are the main things that make you say that X is true?
  • Help me wrap my head around this, can you list the core arguments that make you say that X is true?
  • Any other reasons or arguments?
  • Which of these reasons drive your confidence the most?
  • Of those many arguments you just gave, which one gives you the most confidence?
  • You said you’ve read this very interesting article that was showing some data. If you hadn’t read this article, would you be less confident?
  • Was your confidence less before you found this argument convincing?
  • Did your confidence increase when you discovered that reason Y?

Observe how people are responding. Observe their body language, their choice of words, the pauses they make. Notice what is getting a reaction, that generally indicates that it’s probably the area you should be focusing on.

Step 3(b): Obtain Buy-In

  • If you found out that the method you’ve used to conclude that this belief is true was unreliable, would it lower your confidence?
  • Let’s say that one day you came to realize that reason Y really didn’t apply. I’m not saying it’s happening, let’s just say maybe it happened. Would your confidence drop?

Step 3(c): Explore the Reliability of the Method Used

Explore the reliability of the method that the person used to get to a conclusion, what she used in order to know what she knows, i.e. the epistemology.

  • How could we figure out if it really works that way?
  • What other ways may be out there? Are there other ways we could test this claim?
  • What’s holding all this up? How are you confirming those reasons are the main reasons for thinking something is true? How did you confirm that?
  • What method did you use? Was it reliable? Could we use it for a different claim, even a competing claim, and also conclude that it’s true? If so, maybe it’s not that reliable.
  • Could there be other reasons why this thing happened?

Step 4: Revisit the Confidence Assessment

If it appears you’ve made progress, revisit the initial scale assessment, by asking something along the lines of: “now that you’ve had some time to think about it, how would you now rate your belief on the 0 to 100 scale that we talked about earlier?”

Step 5: End in a Cordial Way

Always try to end the conversation in the most cordial manner possible. This is all the more so important in a workplace environment where you probably need to keep some form of relationship with the person you’re facing in order for the both of you to do your jobs.

You don’t need others to like you in order to do your job, this is not a popularity contest. But you do want to keep cordial relationships and act professionally. Give people time to process these things, and give them some way to save face to some extent.

Things You Need to Consider When Using Street Epistemology At Work

Most guides on street epistemology cover conversations that you’d be having with total strangers, trying to convince them about random beliefs that come up on the spot, and you might never see them again.

In a work environment, your conversations are with people you are dealing closely with on a regular basis, and with whom you have a working relationship. As for the topics, they won’t be random beliefs, but rather they’ll be very much directed on the content of the organization you’re in, either tech, processes, or product/business.

Don’t overuse SE on the same people over and over again, it will irritate them. If you do use it often, then be smart about finding different formulations for the steps and questions I mentioned above, so you don’t come across as a one-trick pony.

Another important point is that the fact that you’re in a work environment won’t allow you to remain neutral. SE in its pure form is not about evangelizing or pushing your world view, it’s about helping people realize that they might not have good reasons for thinking that something is true. However, in the workplace, you will have your own opinions and your own objectives, and often you won’t have the luxury of remaining neutral and you’ll have to push your opinions on others in order to get things done.

On top of this, if you work at a large company then chances are that many conflicting agendas will come into play, and therefore you will likely face people who are being dishonest, disingenuous, or even cynical. This could be due to many reasons: because they’re afraid of repercussions, because there isn’t enough trust in the organization’s culture, and so on. If you face one such person, you could model openness and honesty, in hope they’d reciprocate. You might also need multiple interactions to build up trust to a level that you can have a productive conversation.

Now, if someone is being dishonest on purpose, then street epistemology won’t be the right tool for you to make progress. You can’t let this person get away with it either: you have to set boundaries and confront them about it either directly or via an escalation.

In those cases you may have to resort to other managerial or organizational options in your toolbox, such as appealing to company and org values, negotiating to find compromises, escalating to higher-ranking managers, or even sanctioning via performance management if the misbehaving person reports to you.

And more generally, there are certain types of people who just will be difficult to deal with. Some people do not value truth or believe that trust is relative. They would say “it’s okay, everybody can have their own truth”, and there is no point in trying to engage with someone in a professional setup if they think that truth is not objective. If you face such people, then you have to manage them out of your organization.

Finally, when all else fails, you can try and roll back to connecting with your interlocutor via their beliefs, trusted sources, and values.

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Where To Go From Here?

If you’d like to learn more about street epistemology, I have you covered!

There are two YouTube channels particularly interesting for that, where streamers are recording themselves doing SE conversations with strangers. One is Anthony Magnabosco, and the other is Reid Nicewonder. They’ve been an excellent starting point for me, here are a few short and good conversations if you want to take a look:

Magnabosco also has a great tutorial playlist. He does a commentary of previous conversations he’s had, and does a breakdown of how he approaches the conversations, which questions he decided to ask and how, and what impression the conversation left on him. If you’re interested in watching this, just watch the first four videos in the playlist and ignore the rest, it will take you about two hours to go through that content. 

And finally, Magnabosco also gave talks about the theoretical aspect of SE, where he covers his approach to having good conversations, how to build rapport quickly, how to keep the person open, etc.

Oh, and in How to Have Impossible Conversations by Peter Boghossian, I found Chapter 2 about the “Seven Fundamentals of Good Conversations” to be particularly good advice. I’m starting to use it as a reference to help engineers in my org develop better people skills.

More Resources

Photo credit: all photos used in this article come from this link. Because they’re street art, it was difficult for me to figure out the name of each artist, but you can learn more that link if you’d like.

Published inLeadership and Management

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